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For master carver, cuts run deep

Jim Hart is carrying on a family and a Haida tradition.

April 13, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, when he sank his first set of serious blades into a cedar log, Jim Hart knew he was doing something traditional, something his family and other native Haida had been doing for generations on their islands off the coast of British Columbia.

What Hart didn't know is that his carving, from intricate jewelry to 50-foot totems, would win him an international following and set off a series of reunions with his great-great-grandfather.

"These are my weapons of choice," said the 53-year-old artist, brandishing an adz and skew chisel in the lobby of the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West. Before him lay an 1,800-pound, 12-foot-long section of red cedar log.

He pushed the chisel forward with his right hand and pushed it down, digging into the soft wood with his left. The shavings curled and fell, and the sharp scent of cedar hung in the air.

"Haida perfume," said Hart, who is a hereditary chief and one of the most celebrated native artists in the Pacific Northwest. His lean arms testified to decades of bladework. A dark ponytail trailed beneath his green beret.

He'd planned to spend several days in the museum lobby carving as part of the "Totems to Turquoise" exhibition, which continues through Aug. 20. And mostly that's what he did.

But then Hart learned that the Autry's Southwest Museum in Mount Washington had an extensive collection of native work from the Northwest. Including Haida work. Including a piece by a carver named Charles Edenshaw.

And so midway through his work on the totem, Hart made his way to Mount Washington, joined by a passel of Autry and Southwest staffers.

Soon he stood before a display case, regarding an argillite totem by Edenshaw, a black stone piece not quite 9 inches high, delicately carved to show the sleekly stylized faces of two men, a killer whale and a bear.

Edenshaw, born in 1839, died in 1920, is a key figure in Haida history, a remarkably skilled carver and one of the first to realize that outsiders would pay for examples of Haida woodwork and stonework. And he was Hart's grandfather's mother's father.

In the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th, Edenshaw carved prodigiously, sending many works to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Quebec, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Dozens more went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which selected several for inclusion when it originated the "Totems to Turquoise" show.

Hart has come across his great-great-grandfather in most of these institutions now, and he's eager to get to England to check out another Edenshaw at Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum. Every time he faces one of those works, Hart said, "it's like visiting the ancestors."

But it's bittersweet too. In the years after first contact with Europeans in the 1700s, the Haida community was devastated by smallpox, and many traditional skills were lost or nearly lost. Meanwhile, as collectors and museums swooped in to acquire exemplary Haida work like Edenshaw's, the islanders lost a big chunk of their material culture.

As an island child in the '60s, Hart said, he remembered seeing only "a few bracelets" made by his great-great-grandfather, which the family usually kept under wraps.

"We were brought up with the idea that they all stole things from us," said Hart. He still has plenty of arguments with the Canadian government, he said, but over time he's come to believe that in his community, "in most cases, people sold things.... Most of the pieces have receipts."

It wasn't until Hart chose carving over fishing and started advancing in his craft -- first as an assistant to Haida carver Bill Reid, then on his own -- that he began to better understand the art and the family legacy.

"Pole carving is quite special. It scares a lot of guys," he said. "You have to know a lot. You're really putting yourself out there."

Over the years, Hart has carved for myriad clients, including the Swedish royal family (which commissioned a 30-foot totem). And like Edenshaw more than a century before him, he does a lot of his business with museums -- perhaps 25%, he said, perhaps more.

Hart is quick to voice gratitude for any institution that responsibly preserves Haida art and artifacts. When a museum displays his work near his great-great-grandfather's, that, said Hart, makes him "happy as hell."

"He's probably the top carver on the Northwest coast," said Lois S. Dubin, an authority on Native American arts who co-curated "Totems to Turquoise."

Hart, his wife and three of their four children split time between the islands and Vancouver. His eldest daughter, 20-year-old Lia, is in her second year at Duke University on a rowing scholarship, and Hart likes to say that if you really want to feel a strong bicep, you should touch her arm.

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